The 2012 Inbox: Social, Cluttered – and Still Private

This is one of six “The 2012 Inbox” columns this month, as the e-mail columnists of ClickZ examine the near future of e-mail marketing.

In the massive battle for our digital attention, the humble e-mail inbox actually becomes more important, not less. With each new feature competing for our attention, our inbox remains our private, personal space. The inbox of 2012 will be an interactive, portable dashboard. This will happen in part because consumers want to have centralized management of their friends and connections, but also because the mailbox providers – Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo – want desperately to be more central in our digital lives.

The integration of social, mobile, and e-mail has already begun to settle inside the inbox. Gmail lets me update my status on Facebook, send a tweet, update my blog, and write an e-mail to my mom – all from the same interface. Yahoo integrates with IM and its “What’s New” tab shows status updates from a wide variety of services. Even a beta version of Outlook 2010 integrates social networking. Facebook and MySpace have announced plans to provide primary inboxes as part of their communities. All of this is now accessible everywhere from PCs to iPads to smartphones.

This unprecedented control given to users for managing their digital lives is both good and bad for e-mail marketers. It’s good because more time will be spent in the inbox, where marketers can be present (provided they’re welcome, interesting, and helpful). It’s also good because social activities generate a lot of commercial e-mail messages – generally welcome by consumers – and let marketers reach the inboxes of their fan base via status updates. It’s bad because promotional messages may lose some of the status they’ve enjoyed alongside person-to-person e-mail as mailbox providers give users more control over sorting and deleting.

  1. Yahoo allows users to sort e-mail by contacts (in your address book) or connections (people you are connected to through any Yahoo service). Permission doesn’t make marketers a contact or connection, and so marketing messages may lose some of the prominence in the inbox. In the past, “add to address book” was largely an inbox deliverability tactic, earning the marketer images and links on by default. It now means to be present at Yahoo, marketers have to make it worthwhile for users to add us to the address book.
  2. Hotmail recently introduced the “sweep” feature, which allows users to quickly move all messages from a particular sender out of the inbox and into a folder. This might be just as bad as a delete, as messages in folders may not get read quickly (or at all) before they’re automatically deleted by Hotmail.

While it puts pressure on marketers to be more relevant and engaging, I believe all this spells opportunity for e-mail marketers. E-mail has always been a powerful marketing channel because it’s also a powerful personal communication channel. Social media is public and frantic and loud. E-mail is private and controlled and secure. For that reason, e-mail will continue to be a hub for our social activities, and remain a destination for connecting with information we like from both friends and brands.

  1. With fragmentation will come focus. Inboxes are everywhere! From Facebook, Twitter, SMS, and the Web, more inboxes will increase competition. But this will also create opportunity for marketers to create targeted experiences as subscribers delegate certain functions and habits to different inboxes. For example, Hotmail released subscriber survey data earlier this year that indicates subscribers want to use the service to connect with brands. Transactional messages are also good places for relevant, targeted marketing. Similarly, mobile commerce makes SMS messages from nearby stores and destinations more relevant, so marketers can shift some alerts to that channel. When marketers make our messages personal, relevant, and responsive to recent behavior, they will be welcome in these various brand friendly inboxes, even if marketing and promotions aren’t welcome in other, more personal inboxes.
  2. For sender reputation, engagement means truly engaged. Engagement, response, and inbox placement rates are inextricably linked. In 2012, more engagement metrics will join complaints (clicks on the report spam button) as essential and influential elements in the reputation “cocktail” used by mailbox providers and others to determine if messages should reach the inbox. Expect to see more of the things being tested today like ratings/votes, movement of messages between folders (e.g., moving from junk back to inbox), session length, frequency of log in (aka, a power user vs. an occasional user), and even opens and clicks. That means that all those dormant and non-responsive subscribers who have little or no engagement with a brand are going to sink a marketer’s sender reputation and response rates. Marketers must become proactive with these subscribers – they’re in desperate need of a different cadence, content strategy, or relationship driver.
  3. Domains rule. By 2012, it’s likely sender reputation will shift to track at the domain level. In today’s IP-based reputation algorithms, a brand can be disguised in a shared IP, or may keep quality e-mail streams separate from low quality (or high-complaint) mailstreams. Enterprise and transactional e-mail may also be affected by the reputation of marketing messages. Marketers will have to partner with commerce and enterprise IT to maintain and manage a good sender reputation.

More than anything else, come 2012, “change” will be the new black – and a constant. Marketers are wise to adjust content, contact, and measurement strategies today to encourage engagement, become proactive around sender reputation, and make sure e-mail strategy is aligned with how customers and prospects manage their digital lives.

Please let me know your predictions for the social inbox – and how you’ll be adapting to it – in the comments section below.

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